[MARINE_BIOLOGY_INTERNATIONAL] Turtle patrol isn't a walk on the beach


Ernst: Turtle patrol isn't a walk on the beach

Turtle patroller Mike Shlasko carefully checks for eggs at a nest on Manasota Key in June. Rain had wiped out the mother turtle's tracks, so Shlasko wanted to ensure he had marked the correct location.

By Eric Ernst

Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at 1:23 p.m.

Turtle patrol is not quite the glamorous beachside jaunt some of us imagine.

I learned that on a recent Sunday morning when I walked with Michael and Andrea Shlasko on a stretch of Manasota Key beach in Englewood.

When the Shlaskos invited me, I jumped at the chance. Turtle patrol has always been on my bucket list of things to do in retirement. I always envisioned joining the thousands of volunteers statewide who each year watch for sea turtles laying eggs or hatching, then report those events to researchers. What could be better than communing with nature while at the same time helping scientists understand the behavior of endangered creatures?

It turns out that turtle patrol takes a lot of time, training, continuing education, endurance, attention to detail and just plain old hard work.

We started at 6:20 a.m. on a muggy day at the Manasota Beach Club by spraying our legs to repel no-see-ums and mosquitoes.

The Shlaskos loaded two backpacks and a cloth sleeve with water bottles, measuring tape, logbooks, cameras, GPS reader, a mallet, stakes, orange marking tape and a bucket.

Then off we went to scour a roughly half-mile territory between the beach club and the Pearl Beach Resort known as Zone 9.

State permit holders oversee the volunteers. In the Shlaskos' area, the nonprofit Coastal Wildlife Club, run by Wilma Katz and Zoe Bass, holds the permit. As another local example, Mote Marine is permitted for beaches from Longboat Key through Venice and manages 300 volunteer patrollers.

Each day, the patrollers watch for the telltale signs of a "crawl," the trail left by a mother turtle, generally a loggerhead in this area. The markings resemble smooth tire tracks with tread on the sides where the turtle's flippers have dug up the sand. Patrols have to start in the morning, before waves, wind, rain and beachgoers wipe out the tracks.

Crawls do not always lead to nests. The mother turtle often returns to the water without laying eggs, sometimes because she encounters an obstacle, such as beach furniture or even driftwood. On Sunday, one false crawl terminated at a half-buried 2-by-4, perhaps the remains of an old dock.

The Shlaskos stake out each new nest, marking on the stake the zone, nest number, date and their initials. They also log GPS coordinates for the nests. And they chart the path and direction of each crawl.

The paperwork may sound painless, but it becomes quite time-consuming. For instance, by Sunday, Zone 9 had already logged 105 nests and 179 false crawls since nesting season opened May 1.

The couple also check existing nests each day for predation, which is recorded in the log book and on the stake.

The occasional dog or coyote may dig up a nest, and ghost crabs often burrow down and drag away an egg or two, but raccoons are the most voracious predators.

Sure enough, raccoon tracks and the flies buzzing over Nest No. 103 signified broken eggs and intruders. Protocol demanded that Michael and Andrea don plastic gloves and dig into the sand to assess the damage. Andrea counted 51 broken shells, or about half the 100 or so eggs expected in a nest. The couple logged their findings, and Michael buried the detritus at the waterline to help hide the scent and discourage future incursions.

As we neared the north end of Zone 9, a woman ran from her house. She and her family, visiting from Idaho Springs, Colo., had recognized the Shlaskos as turtle patrollers, and she asked, "Did you see the turtle nest by the stairs?"

Two days earlier, shortly after the Shlaskos had finished their rounds, Patty Septon said, she and her daughters Megan, 8, and Sara, 10, had watched a turtle lay eggs at 10:30 in the morning. In response to slight skepticism, because loggerheads rarely lay eggs in daylight, she produced photos and took us right to the site.

A patrol the next day missed the nest because rain had wiped out the turtle's tracks. Michael carefully dug to the eggs and verified the nest as No. 109.

The Shlaskos have undergone extensive training. They've studied under Bass, Katz and other patrollers; they've taken classes on lighting regulations, how to handle stranded turtles and how to identify predator tracks; and they attend workshops to stay certified.

Information collected by the Shlaskos winds up in a database managed by Anne Meylan at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. Scientists use the database. It also helps state agencies make decisions on land acquisition and the location and timing of beach renourishment, boat races and construction such as dune crossovers.

"We love turtles. We do it for the turtles," says Michael, whose reptilian love affair started 30 years ago when he swam with the creatures in Akumal, Mexico. "Fish just swim from place to place. Turtles glide through the water." Added Andrea: "Once you've held one of those little guys in your hand, your heart is taken."

That passion drives the work done by the Shlaskos.

The turtle tally on our Sunday patrol came to five new nests, five false crawls, and two drops, the slight settling of the sand that occurs just before the hatchlings emerge.

It was hot. It was buggy. Sometimes it didn't smell so good. And it took more than three hours to finish.

When I arrived home, I couldn't wait to share my experiences with my wife, who was at the store. By the time she returned, I was asleep on the couch.

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